The Volcanologist’s Paradox

Studying powerful eruptions means witnessing beauty and tragedy in the same moment.

A red sky and yellow-lit smoke background USGS scientists working in front of the actively outgassing Fissure 8 vent, in Hawaii.
USGS scientists work in front of the actively outgassing Fissure 8 vent of Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano. (Emily Mason / USGS)

On March 16, 2017, Mount Etna almost killed Boris Behncke. He was on the volcano’s snow-covered flanks, accompanying a film crew from the BBC. Serpents of lava were slithering out of a southeastern crater, but Behncke, a volcanologist at Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, felt no need to take his hard hat out of his bag. They were more than a mile away from the crater, seemingly far from harm’s reach.

Suddenly, flashes of steam erupted from the ice—lava had snuck into the snowbank and was violently vaporizing it, launching red-hot debris into the air. Everyone bolted downslope; some were knocked off their feet by the blasts, others pelted by a Hadean hail of volcanic rock. A small, scorching-hot chunk of matter shot at Behncke, careening through his backpack like a bullet through Jell-O. That he had not whipped out his hard hat proved oddly fortunate: If he had put it on his head, that volcanic shard would have sliced through his abdomen.

That day, Behncke thinks, “haunted all of us for a while,” he told me. But the same evening, he watched the eruption unfold on TV and said to himself: “This is beautiful. It’s spectacular!”

This is the volcanologist’s emotional paradox. Eruptions “are very spectacular. I do admire them,” Behncke, who lives on Etna’s slopes, 13 miles from the summit, told me. “But we are things in their way.”

Roughly 40 volcanoes are erupting on Earth at any given moment. Most do so harmlessly. Some cause great devastation. Right now, lava is cascading out of the Cumbre Vieja volcano, on the Spanish island of La Palma, and every day lives are upturned and homes are lost.

Somewhat perversely, this ongoing destruction is accompanied by a kaleidoscope of aesthetic wonders: Incandescent ink, with hues of crimson and burnt orange, pours into the cerulean sea; streaks of purple lightning dance around skyscraper-high lava fountains; curtains of molten rock spill out of a newborn lithic coliseum, creating the youngest land on Earth.

When volcanologists watch eruptions like this, the boundary between awe and horror “is a very narrow edge,” Behncke said.

Some eruptions tip easily over that edge, in one direction or the other. The 1985 eruption of Colombia’s Nevado del Ruiz volcano, for example, triggered mudflows that killed 23,000 and still haunts many volcanologists to this day. “There was nothing beautiful there,” Behncke told me. In contrast, this past March, the first eruption in 800 years on Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula was forecast well in advance, fully expected to be nonexplosive and nonthreatening, and seemed likely to be confined to uninhabited valleys. Locals and volcanologists alike greeted it with wonderment, and the baby volcano—which had built itself from scratch from a series of lava-spewing fissures—was soon the backdrop to gigs, wedding proposals, and impromptu lava-fueled cooking; researchers had countless chances to conduct cutting-edge science.

But between these two endpoints are dangerous eruptions, the most deleterious effects of which can be curtailed through forensic examination of a volcano’s history, scientific documentation of eruptions in real time, and monitoring by an array of technologies. No amount of preparation, though, prevents all harm. There is often some degree of loss—of communities, livelihoods, or lives—and managing and studying these active volcanoes during their outbursts can bring up a mélange of emotions.

A volcanologist heading toward an active site
Emily Mason in 2018, walking toward the origin point of a lava-seawater interaction plume (Evgenia Ilyinskaya / USGS)

Take Cumbre Vieja. Since it started erupting on September 19, its first outpouring after a half-century interregnum, the southwestern corner of La Palma has been invaded by molten rock. Hundreds of homes and plenty of farmland have been annihilated, but careful monitoring and preemptive mandatory evacuation orders have so far prevented any fatalities. Similarly, when Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano expelled 320,000 Olympic-size swimming pools’ worth of lava from fresh wounds in its eastern flank in the spring and summer of 2018, it destroyed more than 700 homes, but thanks to the work of scientists and the authorities, no one perished. No volcanologist would disagree that Kīlauea’s outburst, like the eruption at La Palma, was ruinous. But it was the first time that many volcanologists who made it to Hawaii had seen lava up close—and it granted them an otherworldly, often breathtaking experience.

At the time, Emily Mason was a doctoral student of volcanology at the University of Cambridge, and her visits to the rivers and fountains of molten rock gushing from Kīlauea’s eighth fissure—by that stage, the focal point of the eruption—gave her an emphatic introduction to the double-sided emotion an eruption can raise. “When you’re stood in front of something as phenomenal as the lava flows coming out of fissure eight … it was like a river rapid, a torrent of lava … It’s hard to think of anything else, despite the fact that you’re acutely aware that you’re probably standing on top of someone’s house that’s been buried,” she told me. “It’s very surreal.” Jessica Ball, a volcanologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s California Volcano Observatory, felt much the same way. “I had a moment where I just stopped and said: ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing this,’” she told me. “It’s incredible; it’s dangerous. And you’re standing in the middle of this apocalyptic-looking neighborhood.”

At the same time, the eruption presented researchers with a bounty of volcanological treasure: a chance to listen to a seismic soundtrack to determine changes in upcoming explosivity; an opportunity to see how this giant volcano’s dramatically deflating summit forced lava out of its flanks; a front-row seat to a massive, lava-spewing eruption that made future effusive eruptions more forecastable around the world. To be able to conduct so much revelatory research was unquestionably thrilling.

These more positive emotions can sit uneasily with volcanologists. But it isn’t difficult to see where their involuntary astonishment comes from. “There is this sense of us waiting for these eruptions with bated breath,” Mason said. “We’re so excited for when they do actually happen that it is easy, momentarily, to forget how devastating they are.”

“Scientists like to sometimes divorce themselves from emotions, but it’s impossible to do that,” Ball told me. “This is your career; this is what you’ve worked toward all your life, and suddenly it’s in front of you.”

Fissue 8, in Hawaii
Penny Wieser and Emily Mason collect fresh lava-channel-overflow samples at Fissure 8. (Evgenia Ilyinskaya / USGS)

For Richie Robertson, a volcanologist at the University of the West Indies, this notion of waiting a lifetime for an idiosyncratic fireworks show is especially apt. La Soufrière, on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, blew its top in 1979—when Robertson was in his senior year of high school. He decided to become a volcanologist after noticing that none of the scientists dealing with the response hailed from St. Vincent and thinking, as he recalls: “How is it we, as people in St. Vincent, don’t have anybody here who knows enough about the volcano?”

In December 2020, a toothpaste-like slurry of lava began to ooze from La Soufrière’s peak, and the following April, a seismic cacophony and a hyperventilating summit suggested that an explosive eruption was incoming. An evacuation was ordered on April 8—and the booms began the very next day. After it became clear that the evacuation had prevented a loss of life, Robertson’s initial nerves faded somewhat, and he could not help but marvel. “Those mushrooming clouds going up in the air and expanding, and looking like they’re alive, and at night you see lightning flashing and you can see the pyroclastic flows snaking in the valleys—all of that is spectacular to see,” he told me. The volcano is far quieter today, but he remains in awe of La Soufrière. “It’s still as majestic and dangerous and interesting as it ever was—perhaps even more so now.”

The unyielding power of eruptions, which affect every single sense, gives volcanoes a somewhat deific status. They are akin to giant, primordial, tempestuous beasts. As they go about their business, hissing and writhing, they remain “impervious to the lifetimes of humans,” says Ailsa Naismith, a volcanologist at the University of Bristol. And, like the gods of old, they seem omnipotent: They make new land, tinker with the atmosphere, incubate life, and, sometimes, trigger biocidal cataclysms.

Eruptions “show that the planet is alive,” Stavros Meletlidis, a volcanologist at Spain’s National Geographic Institute, told me. They are the outward expression of a planet’s healthy geologic heartbeat. It is only human to be moved by their presence.

Yet, especially in the early days of an eruption, as emotions seesaw between awe and lamentation, the danger that volcanoes pose can exert a stronger pull. Meletlidis, who has been monitoring and responding to the eruption on La Palma, understands that the fountains and rivers of lava appear beguiling from a distance. But conditions on the ground have become a litany of desolation. He went to visit a friend one recent Saturday; the next day, lava bulldozed through his friend’s house. “Right now, we’re in an emergency, and we should treat it like an emergency,” he told me.

This attitude, shared by many of his peers, seems to stem at least in part from his own origin story. Many were inspired to become volcanologists by the lethal eruption of America’s Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, whose jaw-dropping dimensions and astounding ferocity shocked the nation. Meletlidis was 15 years old and living in Greece. In the pre-internet age, he first saw the scale of the devastation in an issue of National Geographic.

As he surveyed the images of the eruption-sterilized landscape, he became enamored of the scientists who gave everything—including, in that case, their lives—trying to monitor the convulsing volcano and provide lifesaving data to the public. That’s when he decided to join their ranks and do his best to outsmart these godlike, lithic entities.

At the moment, Meletlidis is trying to outmaneuver Cumbre Vieja. Any thought of exciting scientific advances will wait. “People are more important than the eruption,” he said. Eruptions, he told me, can be hypnotizing, enchanting, and spectacular—but right now, when he looks at those streams of molten rock eroding and demolishing neighborhoods, all he sees is a calamity.